In 1865 the Medical Times and Gazette published a series of articles entitled ‘Report on cheap wine’. There was some concern that the increasing availability of inexpensive wines and spirits was not simply due to increased supply, but that unscrupulous producers were cutting corners or selling counterfeit goods, with serious implications for public health. A ‘Special Empirical Commissioner’ – today he would be called an undercover reporter, I suspect – looked into the problem. This is what he had to say about port:
There are some facts about the stronger wines in common use, and especially about port and sherry, that really deserve serious consideration on the part of the Practitioners who prescribe and the public that drink them, whether as an ordinary article of diet or for the relief of weakness or disease.
Port was commonly used as a tonic remedy. See, for instance, this extraordinary story.
Then as to the effects of port wine upon civilised man, if there be one fact better proved than another, it is that it cannot be drunk habitually in small quantity, nor yet be resorted to as an occasional luxury in larger quantity with safety, by large numbers of our population. Ask any four men of forty and over, and three will say, “I can’t drink port; I am afraid of the gout.”
I rarely drink port myself, but that’s because I’m afraid of the hangover.
Still there is no denying the fact, and it would be very ungrateful to deny it, that the old port wine was an admirable medicine when we wanted to pull a poor wretch up out of a fever or other state of intense debility. Good port wine of the right sort, which answers to the description given it by Forrester—“lively and clean on the palate, dry flavoured, with an enticing bouquet; colour varying from pale rose to bright purple; perfectly transparent and mellowing with age, the rose becoming tawny, and the purple ruby, both of which colours are durable”—such port wine, I say, though good as an alcoholic medicine, yet if of higher alcoholic strength than 30% was not fit for the ordinary drink of healthy persons.
If only today’s doctors gave tasting notes on their medicines…
It would give, and did give, the gout. It was serviceable as a tonic in cases of great debility; but then, as now, a light, unbrandied wine was demanded by all who had taken the trouble to investigate the subject, as necessary for the habitual beverage of healthy persons, and they demanded it on the score of morals no less than of health.
It’s expensive port for me exclusively from now on.